Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, center, celebrates with guard Stephen Curry, top left, forward Draymond Green (23) and center Zaza Pachulia during the second half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
OAKLAND, Calif. — OK, this is getting heavy, The NBA Finals, because the Warriors are piling on: Buckets by the bushel, Stephen Curry crossing up LeBron James, Kevin Durant of course, Klay Thompson dripping wet again and now, Steve Kerr jumping into the mix.
Before tipoff Sunday (Monday, PHL time) the previously-ailing Warriors coach declared himself healthy, much like his team at the moment, and returned to the bench for the first time since April. Kerr says he’s in it for the long haul, and now it remains to be seen if the Cavaliers will be, too, after twin blowouts have left them searching for solutions they may not find.
It was Warriors 132, Cavs 113, in game two, and save for a few competitive stretches this fight has been Gold-Blooded. The Warriors are pushing their immense star power to the extreme and threatening to run away from LeBron, who seems too exhausted to keep up.
There was Curry in the third quarter, isolated on LeBron, dribbling into the lane, then back out again, shook him left and right and slithered to the rim for a layup, leaving LeBron twisted in his wake. The sick move went straight to YouTube, sent a jolt through Oracle Arena, served as a deflating uppercut to Cleveland’s chin, and Curry celebrated with a scream.
“It was a big moment,” Curry said. “It was a momentum swing. You want to have some fun and enjoy that moment.”
And then, minutes later: Durant blocked a Kevin Love layup attempt, sneered and struck a pose as he grabbed the loose ball, which was followed immediately by a Durant fall away basket and another sneer.
Every time the Cavaliers have answered in this series, and it hasn’t been that many times, the Warriors posed a few more questions. Can Durant, averaging 35 points and delivering on defense, be contained? What about Curry, averaging 32 points and dropping a triple-double in game two? Is it possible for Cleveland to compete with a Warriors’ offense that rolled up a buck-thirty and seems lethal from all spots on the floor?
And: Can LeBron sustain his own high level for four full quarters while spending so much energy guarding Durant and multi-tasking on offense?
This is, so far, an ongoing post-season demolition — 14 straight wins now — that Kerr is only too thrilled to see from point-blank range for a change. Troubled by symptoms that developed from back surgery two years ago and flared suddenly, Kerr was a spectator to the spectacle. He handed the coaching reigns to assistant coach Mike Brown early in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers and dealt with his condition.
Kerr’s involvement and communication with the players was limited to the locker room and practice for nearly six weeks. His status for the Finals remained unclear. At one practice during the Western Conference finals, Kerr laid flat on folding chairs while reading his smart phone.
And then, 90 minutes before game two: “Hi everybody.”
Kerr was visibly moved by the flush of good health and the chance to coach again. He said he didn’t want to return until he went days without dealing with symptoms. He remains coy about his overall condition but said he felt comfortable enough to move forward.
“The intention is tonight and the rest of this series,” Kerr said about being on the bench. “That’s the whole idea. I wouldn’t be in this if I was thinking just one game … no, I’m in this for the rest of the way.
“I feel like [my health] is where it was before the Portland series. When I stepped aside in Portland, I didn’t know what happened. I don’t know why things got worse. But since that time, I’ve gotten a lot better and I feel like I’m back to the baseline of where I was during the regular season when I coached every game.”
The synergy the Warriors showed under Brown should remain intact because, after all, the Warriors employ the system devised by Kerr. And anyway, the team is loaded with veterans and talent. The Warriors are perhaps one of the few teams immune to some coaching musical chairs, even at this heightened stage of the season.
There was one difference with Kerr on the bench, and likely by coincidence: Thompson found his touch.
“It did feel good to see the ball go in,” he said. “I was just in a good rhythm. It started with getting to the basket early and taking good shots. If I do that, it’ll all even out.”
Troubled by 36 percent shooting in the post-season and coming off a 3-for-16 effort in game one, Thompson scored 22 points and finally looked efficient doing so, making 8-of-12. He was the missing link and if his chilly past is over, will raise an interesting dilemma for the Cavs. What can they do when Thompson, Curry and Durant are feeling it all at once?
There are other bothersome signs for the Cavs: Golden State won easily Sunday (Monday, PHL time) despite being careless with the ball (20 turnovers, eight by Curry) and with Draymond Green limited to 24 minutes by foul trouble. The Warriors haven’t been perfect in this series and yet still were buoyed by blowouts.
Meanwhile: Kyrie Irving missed 15-of-23 shots and was a non-factor in game two, while the meek contributions of Tristan Thompson, an energetic force through much of the postseason, continues to dog the Cavs. Consider this: Curry has more rebounds (16) in this series than Thompson does (eight).
LeBron therefore finds himself hauling a burden, although initially Sunday he had the strength to pull it off. He was the best player on the floor for the first half, being forceful, making plays and putting the Warriors on alert. He had a triple-double by early in the third quarter and finished an NBA Finals record-tying triple-double with 29 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds. But for much of the second half, LeBron was overloaded; he had four baskets, and in the fourth quarter took only one shot. His body language spoke four-letter words and was finally pulled with five minutes left, with the rout in progress.
Was he cooked by then?
“I just need some food and some wine and I’ll be alright,” he said.
LeBron is the first line of defense against Durant and that’s a contest he’s losing. Additionally, he’s had to cover for Thompson by rebounding, and in game two had to score to compensate for Irving. He’s done that many times in a great career, yet that’s a lot to ask against a team the caliber of the Warriors.
“They’re a different team,” he conceded.
They’re a team with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the Cavs’ throat, at least for now. There are flashes — five minutes here, seven there — where the Warriors appear like an all-time great team, like those in the 1980s with the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers, the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics and the Julius Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers.
And why not? The dynamic between Durant and Curry, both prior Kia MVP winners, is wrinkle-free. This one-two combination is proving nearly impossible keep contained because of their ability to make a variety of shots. Thompson just gave the Warriors one less reason to worry about his confidence. The Golden State defense has surfaced big when it counts. Then there’s this: Green gave a warning to anyone waiting for him to pull a sad stunt, as he did last season with a one-game suspension that perhaps cost Golden State the title.
“I’ve just been playing basketball, brother,” he said, in response to a question about keeping his emotions in check. “When you got great teammates who allow me to be emotional when I’m talking to them, to use my emotions to the better for us, it’s easy.”
Durant interjected: “You waiting for him to go across the line?”
Green continued: “Going over the edge isn’t going to win me a championship. I think I’m a pretty smart guy and I learned my lesson.”
And so: If he wants to rally from being down 0-2 and make this series interesting, LeBron probably can’t depend on Green again. That might spell trouble for the Cavs, who need plenty more than what they’ve shown so far.
“We’re just trying to stay with it,” Durant said. “We know how hard it is to be the best team in the league. So, we just got to keep going, keep pressing on the gas.”
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